'If Christianity Is True, People I Love Will Burn in Hell'

A pastor struggles to answer his daughter's question about the fate of those who don't accept Jesus.

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I had generally avoided the subject of hell in my preaching over the years, touching on it only when necessary and even then doing so as gently as possible. Whenever anyone asked me about hell, I'd give my best, most orthodox answer, but I'd secretly think, "I'll bet they won't buy it." If they did, I was surprised, because if I were on their side of the table, investigating orthodoxy from the outside instead of defending it from within, my answers would not have sufficed.

Anyway, as parents learn to do-and pastors too-I hid my panic and smiled with a kind of reassuring parental smile.

I tried to help Jess that Saturday afternoon by telling her about "inclusivism," an alternative to the "exclusivist" view she was unhappy with. While exclusivism limited eternal life in heaven to bona fide, confessing Christians, inclusivism kept the door open that others could be saved through Christ even if they never identified as Christians. That seemed to help. After maybe twenty minutes of conversation, the buzzer on the dryer sounded, and she thanked me and went off to pack her warm, dry clothes in her duffel bag while I sat there pretending to keep working on my puzzle. I had a feeling she'd be back with more questions before long.

She was-later that night. "Can I ask you another theological question?" she asked, plopping down on the couch next to me. I hit the mute button on the TV remote, and she said that she still wasn't satisfied with inclusivism. It might get a few more people into heaven than exclusivism, but how did I deal with the fact that even one person could be tortured for an infinity of time for a finite number of sins? I again put on my parental face, and this time I told her how a finite being's offense against an infinite God is an infinite offense, which she didn't buy and I didn't push because I myself couldn't imagine a biblical writer using that kind of argument. Then I told her about "conditionalism," the idea that hell is temporary and leads to extinction rather than eternal torment, another minority opinion in Christian theology regarding hell, which helped her a bit more, but only until the next morning.


When I came downstairs for breakfast at about 7 A.M., she was brewing some coffee and picked up the conversation as if neither of us had ever left it.

"So Dad," she said, pouring a cup for each of us, "I still couldn't sleep with your answer. It kept churning in my mind all night. I keep asking myself, what's the point of God even making the world if so much goes to waste? And do you think God planned to have some people tortured forever from the very beginning? Or was hell a kind of unexpected plan B that God couldn't anticipate and is now stuck with? Neither of those sounds very good, you know?"

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